BOOKS Short Subjects

Experts can help you pick good books for your kids. They can’t make the kids like them, however.

Having written a few columns on children’s books, I suddenly find that I’m regarded as something of an expert on them. Some are born expert, some achieve expertise, and some have expertise thrust upon them. I seem to be in the last category.

1 don’t usually have anything against posing as an expert. But when it comes to kids, today’s expert opinion is tomorrow’s outmoded dogma. When 1 was about nine, I discovered the Oz books, and went eagerly to the school library for as many as they had. They didn’t have any, and the large, motherly librarian clucked, “Oh, you shouldn’t be reading those,” and steered me toward the Bobbsey Twins. As it happened, I was already up to here with Nan and Bert and Flossie and Freddie, and was athirst for the magical and improbable.

I know now that the Bobb-seys bored me because their world, while it purported to be the real world, was cardboard, and their language, while it purported to be real speech, was as stilted as the patterned responses in a Berlitz phrasebook. What excited me about the Oz books was that they affirmed the possibility that a world of magic existed, unperceived by ordinary eyes but accessible to those alerted by imaginative fiction.

I also know that the librarian, doing her job as the guardian of impressionable minds, had been reading what the experts were saying about trashy fantasies like the Oz books – that they were anti-social because they encouraged private imaginings, while the Bobbseys, who got out and did things in the fresh air, encouraged healthy play. The witches and wizards and gnomes of the Oz books were anti-realistic. And since the heroes and heroines were mostly abused orphans who fled to a more loving world, they were anti-family, too.

The pendulum swung, of course, and now fantastic fictions like the Oz books are lauded by “experts” like English professor Roger Sale and psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Sale tells us, in a book published by no less than the Harvard University Press, that the Oz books are valuable because they validate “the child’s wonderful acceptance of situation, self, and journey.” And Bettelheim asserts that fairy tales “give conscious credence and body to id pressures and show ways to satisfy these that are in line with ego and superego requirements.”

No, Toto, we certainly aren’t in Kansas anymore.

I suppose 1 should be grateful to Sale and Bettelheim for vindicating, 30 years later, my childhood passion for Oz, but I can’t help quoting their pontifications out of context, if only to show how hard it is to write sense about children’s literature. Both books are valuable. Sale’s Fairy Tales and After (Harvard, $11), though marred by the prose of Academe, is full of mostly level-headed and sometimes provocative readings of children’s books from Grimm to Lewis Carroll to the Oz books to E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. He recaptures the delight of half-forgotten books like Walter R. Brooks’s “Freddy” books (another series my school librarian was reluctant to stock), and he comments wittily on the Americanness of Dr. Seuss, the Frenchness of Jean de Brunhoff’s “Babar” books, and the Englishness of A. A. Milne. As a critical guide to adult pleasures in childish things, Sale’s book is excellent.

Bruno Bettelheim’s readings of the classic fairy tales – the original and unexpurgated versions, in which, for example, the wicked queen in “Snow White” is made to dance to death in red hot slippers – for the most part avoid psychoanalytical jargon. And as long as he does so, Bettelheim is convincing in his insistence that fairy tales enable children to work out their anxieties Oedipal and otherwise in “healthy” ways. Conscientious parents should read Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (Knopf, $12.50), or at least the New Yorker excerpts which were its first appearance in print, if only to reassure themselves that the harsh and brutal elements of the old tales probably aren’t going to do the kids lasting harm.

The trouble with Sale and Bettelheim is not that they take the literature of childhood so seriously but that they take themselves so seriously. Experts have to do that, I guess. But they tend to forget, just as my school librarian and the educationalists who influenced her forgot, that children are ingenious and adaptable. They will find ways of amusing themselves that have nothing to do with your theories of how and why they should amuse themselves. You will go out of your way to stock their rooms with Lego blocks and Creative Playthings and they’ll wind up playing happily with the neighbor kids’ Barbie dolls and Green Slime. Short of removing the tuner knob from the TV, there’s little you can do to keep them from switching from “The Electric Company” or “Studio See” to “Fang Face” or “The Godzilla Power Hour” on Saturday mornings.

But you pay the bills, and that gives you some discretionary power over their libraries. The trick, of course, is to find books that not only fit your conceptions of useful and elegant literature, but also grab and hold their attention. For this you need help – experts like Sale or Bet-telheim or the school librarian, good stores like Taylors or Rootabaga Bookery or the Bookseller, the cachet of prestigious awards like Caldecott or Newbery, and, maybe, the occasional magazine writer with a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

I mention the Caldecott and the Newbery – the former an award for illustration, the latter for text – because they are the Pulitzers of kiddy lit, and guarantees of very high quality. But no guarantee that your kid will really like their award-winners – after all, the judges are grown-ups.

The current superstar of children’s literature is Maurice Sendak, whose Where the Wild Things Are (Harper & Row, $5.95) won the Caldecott gold medal in 1964; his In the Night Kitchen (Harper & Row, $6.95) took the silver honor award in 1970. Though the Caldecott is nominally for illustration, Sendak’s mastery is not merely visual. The cadences of his prose and the rhythms of his narratives are haunting. Both books are dream voyages, night journeys into symbolic landscapes and realms of the unconscious. Mickey falls through the floor of his bedroom into the night kitchen, where three bakers who look like Oliver Hardy try to bake him into a cake, but he rises again in an airplane made of dough, falls once more into a bottle of milk, swims to the top and slides back down the side into his bed, “cakefree and dried.” Mickey’s fallings and risings are hypnotic, imprinted with the magical illogic of dreams. Throughout his potentially terrifying journey, Mickey smiles as though he’s enjoying it all.

Where the Wild Things Are is a fable about Max, who misbehaves and is sent to bed without his supper. His room turns into a forest by a sea, on which he sails to an island full of monsters with gleaming yellow eyes and long teeth and claws. He becomes the king of the wild things, but longs for home, so he sails back to his room to find his supper waiting for him. The simplicity of this narrative is made magical by the almost biblical cadences of Sendak’s prose: “And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.”

Sendak is a major original, a classic in his own time. So, not surprisingly, he is frequently imitated, with mostly indifferent results. The Boogey Man (Houghton Mifflin, $6.95) by Arthur Crowley, illustrated by Annie Gusman, is an obvious copy of Where the Wild Things Are. Sonny, who hates liver, refuses to eat his dinner and is sent to bed with a threat that the Boogey Man will eat him up. When the green, wart-nosed, gat-toothed Boogey Man shows up in Sonny’s room, they become great friends because the ogre doesn’t really like the naughty boys and girls his parents force him to eat. At dawn, when the Boogey Man has to leave, Sonny’s parents knock at his door with an apology, and Sonny offers his apology in return. Concerned with discipline and love, childhood fears and accommodations to them, The Boogey Man is identical in theme to Sendak’s book. Unfortunately, it is written in clunky verse, its illustrations are stiff and flat, and its plot is unconvincing.

Barbara Bottner’s There Was Nobody There (Macmillan, $6.95) is directly parallel to In the Night Kitchen, in that it is a dream journey ending with a reconciliation with the parents. On the whole, this is a better book than The Boogey Man. But like Crowley, Bottner makes a mistake when she introduces the parents as on-the-scene figures. The stagy reconciliation scene at the end of each book makes it didactic, a too-literal affirmation that the child’s parents won’t abandon him when he’s asleep or being disciplined. Sendak reassures his small readers by sharing a private vision with them. He imagines what it is like to be a child; Crowley and Bottner only imagine what it is like to be an adult “dealing with” a child.

So much for critical comparison. Which of the four books is my daughter’s favorite? Right: The Boogey Man.

Oh well.

At least we agree in our love of the work of Steven Kellogg, author-illustrator of The Mysterious Tadpole (Dial, $5.95), Can I Keep Him? (Dial, $5.95), Much Bigger Than Martin (Dial, $5.95), The Mystery Beast of Ostergeest (Dial, $5.95), and The Mystery of the Magic Green Ball (Dial, $4.95). Kellogg is a superb colorist and a master of the cluttered illustration – the kind that keeps the pre-literate child fascinated even after you’ve finished reading the story. Most of his books focus on a resourceful kid who manages to outwit obtuse or recalcitrant adults. Louie, in The Mysterious Tadpole, receives from his uncle in Scotland a tadpole that turns out to be an offspring of the Loch Ness Monster. Louie’s problem is figuring out how to keep him, taking the problem faced by Arnold in Can I Keep Him? one step further. The Mystery Beast of Ostergeest is a retelling of the fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, though with the twist that the kid in the story knows it’s an elephant all along.

Kellogg occasionally turns kids against kids, too. Sibling rivalry is the motivating force in Much Bigger than Martin – as it is in many contemporary kid’s books, though Kellogg handles it with more finesse than most. And The Mystery of the Magic Green Ball deals with the outwitting of a bully. Kellogg’s approach to the world is playful and somewhat flip, but like Sendak he stays within the psychological limits of the child, feeling no need to teach or preach.

In Appelard and Liverwurst (Four Winds, $8.95), Kellogg teams up with another author-illustrator, Mercer Mayer. Mayer wrote the story (with some help from Kellogg) about a farmer who teams up with a rhinoceros, then joins the circus the rhino came from. (The plot is too outlandish, and too much fun, to summarize.) Kellogg’s illustrations are more elaborate than ever, a fantastical blend of Kellogg’s own whimsy with a style and color that suggest Turner’s seascapes and storms and sunsets.

Kellogg’s kids live in a comic-strip world. You may, if you’re having trouble with sibling rivalry in the real world, want some books that deal with it more realistically. Of Course Polly Can Ride a Bike (Follett, $6.95), by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ilon Wikland, deals with the desire of a little girl to ride a big bike like her older brother and sister. Polly goes so far as to steal a bike from the neighbor’s storehouse and go on a wild ride downhill, learning an obviously well-deserved lesson. Illustration and text keep this one from being as heavy-handed as it sounds. Emily’s Bunch (Macmillan, $7.95), by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Alice Numer-off Richter, and Quilts in the Attic (Mac-millan, $6.95), by Robbin Fleisher and illustrated by Ati Forberg, are so simple in story line that you’ll get bored with them quickly. I mention them only because Maggie likes them – at four and a half, she is reassured by any book in which a very small child demonstrates resourcefulness.

Resourcefulness is the virture of Francisco (Macmillan, $7.95), by Robert Maiorano, illustrated by Rachel Isadora. Francisco is the son of a fisherman in the Dominican Republic; when his father has to go away for a while to tend his sick mother, Francisco is faced with the difficulty of supporting his mother and brothers and sisters. He fails at fishing, but finally succeeds by giving tourist children rides on his donkey. A pretty good book if you want to start waking social conscience at an early age, though Maiorano is not preachy about the problems of the poor family.

After a few psychological and moral and social lessons, you need some nonsense for relief. The Magical Drawings of Moony B. Finch (Doubleday, $6.95), by David McPhail, isn’t “pure” nonsense. Like Kellogg’s kids, Moony gives greedy adults their comeuppance. In this case, the adults discover that whatever Moony draws turns into the real thing – so they urge him to draw treasure chests and chauffeur-driven limousines. Moony responds by drawing another picture of all the things he’s created for them, then erasing it, so that their ill-gotten gain disappears. Then he draws a dragon to chase the crowd away.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Atheneum, $8.95), by Judi and Ron Barrett, is a tall tale about a town where the weather comes in the form of food. All the people have to do is walk outside with a plate and a knife and fork whenever they get hungry. Unfortunately the weather takes a turn for the worse and they get things like overcooked broccoli and peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise sandwiches. Wonderful loony illustrations, though you may get a bit queasy after several readings.

Last, and looniest, The Stupids Have a Ball (Houghton Mifflin, $6.95), by HarryAllard and James Marshall. To celebratethe fact that Buster and Petunia haveflunked everything at school, Mr. andMrs. Stupid decide to have a party. Theircat Xylophone (who gets so excited hertail gets stuck in her nose) and dog Kittymix up a bowl of punch – whose ingredients include catsup, pepper, tuna, andglue – and Mr. Stupid dresses up asGeneral George Washing Machine. Andso on. Maggie can take this one or leaveit. I love it.

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